Search for perfect tree begins early 'Charlie Browns' or 'Cadillacs,' trees are moving fast this year

November 26, 1995|By Diana K. Sugg | Diana K. Sugg,SUN STAFF

Everyone is looking for just the right Christmas tree.

Pulling off her gloves, Shirley Crow slowly feels the needles.

Diane Leicht sticks her head close to the boughs and inhales.

Burke Walker walks several feet away from the tree and then turns around, trying to judge the long-distance effect.

In the end, the choice of a Christmas tree is as much a mix of gut instinct and family tradition as it is a beauty contest.

"Everybody has their own opinion of the perfect tree," said Bill Sullivan, a worker at Valley View Farms in Cockeysville, where browsers began scouting out favorites the day after Thanksgiving.

The ritual of getting a Christmas tree reveals much about a family and their lives. Because of busy schedules and a desire to extend the holidays, for instance, more and more families are putting up trees earlier.

On the nursery's huge lot, 165 trees were staked out in 10 even rows, from the "Cadillac of Christmas trees" -- the Fraser fir -- to the most popular and affordable, the Scotch pine. Hundreds of others were piled near the fence, waiting their chance to stand tall. "Silent Night" purred over the speaker.

In one corner of the lot yesterday, Mr. Walker, of Ellicott City, stared at one tree, then another.

"This one's just a little taller and wider," Mr. Walker said finally.

At the same instant, his 4 1/2 -year-old son, Andrew, started to run to the other tree. "I like this one!" he called out.

But as in every family, one person has the final vote. Mr. Walker's choice was bundled up, and Andrew agreed, helping his sister tie a string around the 9-foot Douglas fir. For Andrew and his sisters, 3-year-old Ashley and 1-year-old Amy, stopping to buy a tree on the way home from Thanksgiving at their grandparents' Pennsylvania home is a tradition.

"Is is Christmas?" they began asking yesterday afternoon, a question their parents know they'll be answering frequently in the next month. Mr. Walker and his wife, Darlene, are willing to deal with that just to have the tree up longer. The Walkers seem to be among a growing group of people who are buying their trees right after Thanksgiving.

"It is unbelievable. Everybody's been crying for them," said John Geiger, who works at Garland's Christmas Wonderland in Woodlawn, where about 35 trees were sold by mid-day Saturday. "Because so many people's lives are so hectic, time is very precious. Instead of rushing around, they like to do it early."

In Sykesville, at Rolling Hill Farm and Gardens, they are bracing for the next few weeks. "It's amazing because every year people buy them earlier," said Donald Dokas, Rolling Hill's vice president of operations. "These are the people who are hard-core. They've got to have the pick of the litter."

Prices range from about $35 for a 6-foot balsam, to about $50 for an 8-foot Douglas fir, to about $225 for a 14-to-16-foot Fraser fir.

But how families go about getting a tree, and the type they choose, can reflect their lives.

Mike Fitz-Patrick and Mary Beth Dengler are to be married next June. Her family always gets a blue spruce, and his family picks out a Fraser fir. Yesterday they shopped around and began to broach the topic of what to do next year when they are living under the same roof.

"We're going to have to alternate them every year," said Ms. Dengler.

Kathy Cox of Towson has another dilemma.

Her first child, Lauren, is now 16 months old and very curious.

"We're trying to figure out how to have a Christmas tree without her pulling at it, and it tumbling over," said Ms. Cox, showing Lauren how to stroke the needles. The toddler grasped the branch in her tiny fist. "Pretty," she repeated.

Big tree means big fun

For others, getting a big tree is a celebration.

This is Sean Culton's first Christmas home in eight years, after he had served in the U.S. Marines. So yesterday, he and his wife, Jennifer, and his mother, Pat Culton, drove up from Kent Island to Valley View Farms,where they always went when Sean was a kid.

"It will be a pretty cool one for me," he said.

Alan Thomson, who has been working at Valley View Farms for 19 years, including the past dozen in charge of the Christmas trees, has seen it all. The most common mistake of tree buyers is not knowing the heights of their ceilings. People often come back a few hours after their purchase asking for the tree to be trimmed -- because it won't fit in their house.

Mr. Thomson is often called in to arbitrate family disputes.

"You hear them up there arguing. They ask you which tree is nicer. The lady is holding one, the man is holding another. I say, 'They all look green to me,' " said Mr. Thomson, who is also surprised to find even the ugliest trees have buyers. "People feel sorry for it. 'It's the Charlie Brown tree,' they say."

'Live' trees

Others want trees that last longer than the holiday season.

Particularly popular recently are what's known as "live trees," which are more expensive than cut ones but can be replanted after Christmas in the yard. Mr. Dokas said many families have begun a tradition where they use the trees to mark the years. As they grow, the trees' varying heights look like stepping stones, one for each Christmas.

But not everyone has time to nurture a tree. Many people like the neatness and convenience of an artificial tree.

Diane Leicht faced this classic dilemma yesterday.

With a second job, she knew there would be little extra time in December. So she considered an artificial tree.

"I was thinking, it's less messy, no pine needles, less hassle," the Cockeysville woman said. "But you know," she said, taking a deep breath of pine-scented air, "there's nothing like a real tree."

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